New rules on Cuba travel nar­rows op­tions for trav­el­ers

The Denver Post - - TRAVEL - By An­drea Ro­driguez and Beth J. Harpaz

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s new pol­icy on Cuba travel has win­ners and losers: Group tour op­er­a­tors hope to sell more trips, but bed-and-break­fast own­ers in Cuba say they’re los­ing busi­ness.

Five of 12 pri­vate bed-and­break­fast own­ers in Ha­vana and Cuba’s south­ern colo­nial city of Trinidad told The As­so­ci­ated Press that they re­ceived can­cel­la­tions after Trump’s June 16 an­nounce­ment .

“It’s con­tra­dic­tory that (Trump) says he want to help civil so­ci­ety, the Cuban peo­ple, but what he’s do­ing is hurt­ing them, hurt­ing be­dand-break­fast own­ers in this case,” said Tony Lopez, who rents rooms for $30-$50 nightly in a three-bedroom, 16thfloor apart­ment in Ha­vana’s trendy Vedado neigh­bor­hood. Those can­cel­ing in­cluded two Amer­i­cans wor­ried about le­gal re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing doc­u­ment­ing their spend­ing.

“We get a lot of Amer­i­cans. We’re alarmed,” said Eliset Ruiz, man­ager of a nine-room bed-and-break­fast in Trinidad. “We’ve had a lot of can­cel­la­tions for June and July.”

Alex Bun­ten of Char­lotte, Vt., hoped to go to Cuba with his girl­friend in Au­gust “with­out the has­sle of tour groups and sched­ules and such. We like watch­ing the world go by, eat­ing good food, not be­ing herded by an um­brella-hold­ing, an­noy­ingly in­ter­est­ing tour guide.”

But Bun­ten nixed the idea be­cause un­der the new rules, only li­censed tour op­er­a­tors can take Amer­i­cans to Cuba on “peo­ple-to-peo­ple” trips. That’s “too much of a has­sle,” Bun­ten said.

Group tour boom, or pub­lic con­fu­sion?

Tour op­er­a­tors “should be open­ing Cham­pagne” be­cause of the new pol­icy, said John Caulfield, former chief of mis­sion of the U.S. In­ter­ests Sec­tion in Ha­vana and co-founder of the non­profit In­no­vadores

Foun­da­tion, which seeds in­no­va­tion in Cuba.

In the­ory, the new rules should spur “an in­crease in de­mand,” said Ac­cess Trips CEO Ta­mar Low­ell. But some Amer­i­cans “will be con­fused by the new pol­icy,” wrongly as­sum­ing that all Cuba travel is now off-lim­its.

“The travel op­er­a­tors are go­ing to have to do some work to make peo­ple aware that if you go with us, it’s OK,” said Caulfield.

“Are we go­ing to see busi­ness fall off ?” said Clas­sic Jour­neys Pres­i­dent Ed­ward Piegza. “We could. But it could be good for us.”

A ban on busi­ness with the mil­i­tary

The new rules also ban Amer­i­cans from do­ing busi­ness with en­ti­ties con­trolled by Cuban mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, in­clud­ing some 50 ho­tels.

Many tour op­er­a­tors say that’s no prob­lem be­cause they al­ready use pri­vately owned vil­las, casas and eater­ies, and en­gage with lo­cal guides, en­trepreneurs and artists.

Caulfield said the Cubans can also fill up ho­tels that are off-lim­its to Amer­i­cans with tourists from other coun­tries, thereby free­ing up rooms else­where for U.S. groups.

Mean­while, small be­dand-break­fast own­ers plan to cre­ate in­for­mal as­so­ci­a­tions of neigh­bor­ing busi­nesses so they can ac­com­mo­date larger Amer­i­can groups.

Piegza said lodg­ing costs in­creased last year but are com­ing down, al­low­ing Clas­sic Jour­neys to drop tour prices from $4,995 for four days in Cuba to $3,995.

But Low­ell thinks prices could go ei­ther way. With fewer in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans trav­el­ing, pri­vate lodg­ing op­tions could in­crease, driv­ing prices down. But if tour groups forced out of mil­i­tarycon­trolled ho­tels start book­ing pri­vate homes, prices could stay high.

Ho­tels aren’t an is­sue for cruises be­cause pas­sen­gers sleep on the ships. But Car­ni­val Corp. says even its ac­tiv­i­ties on the ground in Cuba al­ready com­ply with the new rules. “Many of our cur­rent tours have been de­signed with small fami- ly-run op­er­a­tions to give our guests an au­then­tic Cuban ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Car­ni­val spokesman Roger Frizzell.

Oth­ers are re­vis­ing itin­er­ar­ies. “We have had to re­design our women’s trip to Cuba,” said Phyl­lis Stoller from The Women’s Travel Group , which plans a trip for 15 in March. “Our orig­i­nal op­er­a­tor had us vis­it­ing some ru­ral ar­eas that are ap­par­ently owned by the mil­i­tary.”

Mean­while pri­vate en­trepreneurs worry the gov­ern­ment may not al­low U.S. tour groups to sim­ply shift their busi­ness from state-run ho­tels to the pri­vate sec­tor, at least not with­out hefty com­mis­sions. In the decade since Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro be­gan al­low­ing more pri­vate-sec­tor ac­tiv­ity, the gov­ern­ment has viewed en­trepreneurs as both vi­tal sources of eco­nomic growth and as dan­ger­ous com­peti­tors for slug­gish state-run busi­nesses. Be­cause tour groups are re­quired to use gov­ern­ment buses and guides, the gov­ern­ment con­trols their move­ments and re­quires many pri­vate busi­nesses that re­ceive tour groups to sign con­tracts that in­clude com­mis­sions for the gov­ern­ment.

Vis­its to ma­jor tourist at­trac­tions like Ernest Hem­ing­way’s es­tate and the Trop­i­cana night­club shouldn’t be af­fected by the new U.S. rules, since nei­ther falls un­der mil­i­tary aus­pices. U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Florida, a CubanAmer­i­can who sup­ports travel re­stric­tions, sug­gested in tweets that he’d like to ban at­trac­tions run by other Cuban gov­ern­ment agen­cies, like the min­istries of cul­ture and tourism. But it will be months be­fore the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment an­nounces de­tails on which sites are off-lim­its.

Sup­port for the Cuban peo­ple

Ru­bio also sug­gested that in­de­pen­dent travel might con­tinue. Ru­bio tweeted that the new rules al­low “in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans” to “travel to Cuba un­der Sup­port for the Cuban peo­ple cat­e­gory” as long as they use “pri­vately owned lodg­ing.”

That’s heart­en­ing to com­pa­nies like Vi­aHero, which cre­ates per­son­al­ized itin­er­ar­ies con­nect­ing in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans with artists, en­trepreneurs and other Cuban lo­cals. Vi­aHero CEO Greg Buzu­len­cia thinks Vi­aHero trips will qual­ify un­der the “sup­port for the Cuban peo­ple” cat­e­gory of travel per­mit­ted by the U.S. be­cause Vi­aHero’s itin­er­ar­ies “start con­ver­sa­tions and pro­mote in­de­pen­dent busi­nesses and ac­tiv­ity” in Cuba out­side of gov­ern­ment-run spheres.

Vi­aHero’s model is also af­ford­able, as lit­tle as $400 for a week in Ha­vana — plus a $25-a-day trip­plan­ning fee — com­pared with group tours charg­ing $5,000 for a week.

Chad Olin, pres­i­dent of Cuba Can­dela , says his com­pany’s peo­ple-to-peo­ple tours qual­ify un­der the new rules be­cause all lodg­ing, driv­ers, res­tau­rants and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties are from Cuba’s pri­vate sec­tor. But he also thinks Amer­i­cans can travel in­de­pen­dently us­ing the “sup­port for the Cuban peo­ple” cat­e­gory, as long as they pa­tron­ize pri­vate busi­nesses and con­nect with lo­cals in mean­ing­ful ways.

Ra­mon Espinosa, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Tourists ride a tour bus in front of the Capi­to­lio in Ha­vana, Cuba. Five of 12 pri­vate bed-and­break­fast own­ers in Ha­vana and Cuba’s south­ern colo­nial city of Trinidad told The As­so­ci­ated Press that they re­ceived can­cel­la­tions after Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s June 16 an­nounce­ment of a new pol­icy on Cuba travel.

Ra­mon Espinosa, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Tourists take a selfie at the Bode­guita Del Me­dio bar in Ha­vana, Cuba.

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